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Obama puts Florida back in spotlight for election incompetence

WASHINGTON — Florida’s growing history of flawed elections regained national attention Tuesday when President Obama used the story of a 102-year-old former Belle Glade farmworker who waited hours to vote to highlight a new nonpartisan voting commission.

The commission, which will be led by lawyers who represented the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns, has been tasked with reducing long lines, providing better customer service and ensuring that members of the military and others who are overseas can cast a ballot, among other issues.

“When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied that right because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama said Tuesday.

Obama told the story of Desiline Victor, who now lives in North Miami. It took her two trips to the polls during early voting to cast her ballot. Others in line with her complained to the election staff, and she was told to come back when lines might be shorter, according to the Advancement Project, a civil rights group working with Victor.

When she did return, she waited three hours.

“And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say,” Obama said. “And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her — because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, ‘I voted.’”

The commission will be led by Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, lawyers for the Obama and Romney campaigns, respectively.

During the 2012 presidential election, Florida voters stood in line for as long as eight hours to cast a ballot. Then it took the state four days to announce Obama had won its 29 electoral votes — long after it was clear he’d been reelected.

—Laura Green, Cox Newspapers

Japanese central bank defends yen policies

TOKYO — The recent monetary push by Japan does not amount to currency manipulation and is a legitimate and much-needed effort to lift its economy out of deflation, the country’s central banker said Thursday after new figures showed an unexpected economic contraction in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary policy seeks only to stabilize the economy,” Masaaki Shirakawa, the governor of the Bank of Japan, told reporters in Tokyo after the bank decided to stand pat on policy moves for now, maintaining its benchmark rate goal of zero to 0.1 percent and holding off on expansion of an asset-buying program. “It does not seek to influence currencies.”

Earlier Thursday, gross domestic product numbers from the government showed the Japanese economy remained fragile, shrinking at an annualized rate of 0.4 percent in the October-to-December quarter, the third consecutive quarter of contraction.

Still, economists expect a Japanese economic recovery to gain steam later this year as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pursues fresh fiscal stimulus programs while maintaining pressure on the central bank to stick to near-zero interest rates and continue to flood the economy with money.

—Hiroko Tabuchi, The New York Times

Nuclear watchdog says no agreement reached with Iran

PARIS — A senior official of the U.N. nuclear supervisory body said Thursday that talks a day earlier in Iran had ended inconclusively and international inspectors had not been given access to a site that they suspect may have been used for testing bomb triggers.

Herman Nackaerts, the deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the discussions “could not finalize” a document that “once agreed, should facilitate the resolution of outstanding issues regarding possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program.”

He declined to say whether any progress had been made.

The talks have been going on for months, veering from apparent optimism last May when Yukiya Amano, the IAEA director general, said there had been a decision “to conclude and sign” an agreement, to far more muted recent assessments.

Before Wednesday’s talks, Amano said: “The outlook is not bright.”

—Alan Cowell, The New York Times

Merck settles investor suits over cholesterol drug

Merck has agreed to pay $688 million to settle lawsuits claiming that it harmed investors by delaying the release of unfavorable study results for its cholesterol drug Vytorin, the company announced Thursday. Merck also said it recorded a $493 million charge to cover the cost of the settlement.

The two lawsuits were filed by investors and claimed that Merck and Schering-Plough, which jointly sold Vytorin, knew for nearly two years that a clinical trial of the drug failed to show that it was any better than a statin drug at limiting plaque buildup in the arteries but did not make the results public until 2008.

The companies’ stock dropped significantly after the full results were released and a panel of cardiologists recommended that the drugs be used only as a last resort.

Vytorin combines the statin drug Zocor with a different anti-cholesterol drug, Zetia, but several studies — including the one in question — have failed to show that Vytorin or Zetia are more effective than statins, most of which are available as low-cost generics and have been proven to reduce the risk of heart attacks. Zetia has been shown to lower bad cholesterol, but it is still not known whether it reduces heart disease.

—Katie Thomas, The New York Times